Nina O’Brien Poised For Big Things As Alpine World Cup Begins

by Marc Lancaster

Nina O'Brien competes during the women's giant slalom at the 2021 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships on Feb. 18, 2021 in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.


Looking at the big picture, it appears Nina O’Brien is in an ideal position as the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup opens with the giant slalom races at Soelden, Austria, this weekend. 
The 23-year-old is coming off a stellar season that featured a top-10 finish in GS at the world championships and she will begin 2021-22 a career-best 15th on the world cup start list in the event. Building from a base like that would be a positive in any season, but the timing is particularly good for O’Brien considering this is also an Olympic year. 
Then again, she’s trying not to think about all of that. 
“I think now that I’ve had a taste of being in the mix with that top group of girls, I of course have goals to be there,” O’Brien said. “I think I’m better than I was going into last year, but I’m trying to keep it about the skiing because I feel like it’s so easy to spiral when you’re thinking about what you want to do with results. For me, things always go better when I go turn by turn and just try and really keep it simple.”
Breaking challenges down into manageable pieces has served her well lately, on and off the hill. An economics major at Dartmouth, she spent the summer at home in Denver working 9 to 5 at a private equity firm with two-a-day gym workouts on either end of that shift. She was off the snow the entire time but appreciated the chance to get some work experience while maintaining her physical conditioning. 
“It was really great for me to see how what I’m learning in the classroom translates into the real world, and learning a lot of new things as well,” she said. “I enjoyed it and I feel like I got the work done, both in the gym and also in the internship.”
O’Brien got back on her skis in mid-August as Team USA gathered in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, to prepare for the upcoming season, with lessons learned last year still fresh in her mind. 
“I feel like the years prior I was still just building, trying to find confidence and find my groove at world cups,” she said. “I’ve always felt like I’ve been training well and skiing well the past few years but earlier I was struggling to actually show that skiing in world cups.

Nina Obrien celebrates after competing in slalom at the 2020 FIS Alpine Ski World Cup on Dec. 29, 2020 in Semmering, Austria.


“But I think something clicked last season where it just felt much more comfortable at the races and just really focused on my program and what I wanted to do that day and I was able to, I guess, look past all the bells and whistles of being at a world cup. … 
“I also feel like I got more comfortable taking risks at world cups, which is huge for me. I think in the past sometimes I’d been a little bit safe with my skiing, so it felt really good to know that I was pushing my limits. No, it didn’t always work out, but it’s still a good feeling looking back, knowing that you were really going for it.”
Each of those steps — transferring what worked in training into competition, sharpening her focus to what really mattered on race day, and taking more risks to find that edge in a sport where fraction of a second make the difference — elevated O’Brien to unseen heights. 
She finished ninth in slalom at Semmering last December, then placed 10th in GS at the world championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The latter was particularly important in affirming O’Brien’s ascent, as she stood second to Mikaela Shiffrin after the first run, 0.02 seconds behind her teammate and 0.06 ahead of eventual champion Lara Gut-Behrami of Switzerland.
Though she couldn’t carry that start through to a podium finish, O’Brien said it was a “spectacular day” for her because it validated everything she had been working on all season. 
“I don’t know if I really would have believed I had that speed or that ability to be at that top level,” she said, “but it was really cool to show myself, as well as everyone else, that I can ski at that level and compete with some of the best skiers out there.”
With that belief now ingrained, O’Brien’s confidence will be at an all-time high as she opens the world cup season at Soelden, where she finished 15th last year. 
While the world cups are always the ultimate measuring stick, their importance is magnified in Olympic years because they serve as the primary factor in determining who will end up on Team USA. O’Brien had no realistic chance at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, so this is the first time she enters a season with the possibility of realizing a dream just around the corner. 
Not that she is willing to peek around that corner, of course.
“I think it’s probably lurking in the back of all of our minds,” she said. “I know I’m excited that there’s a possibility there, but we have so many world cup races coming that are not only important on their own, but you have to perform there if you want to get to the Olympics, so I’m just kind of taking it race by race.”
Starting with the first turn of that first run Saturday in Soelden.

Marc Lancaster is a writer and editor based in Charlotte. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.